A fresh perspective can be a a tremendous boon to creating a television show, or it can be an enormous handicap. If you're new to this, you may not see the form the same way all the veterans do, and you may wind up telling stories in an entirely new way. Or you may find yourself repeating things that many before you have tried because you don't know what's a cliche and what isn't.
On the positive end of things, look at Simon Rich. He wasn't entirely new to TV when he created FXX's “Man Seeking Woman,” having spent a few years on staff at “SNL,” but it was the first show he created and the first sitcom he worked on after a long time as a novelist and short story writer. That show doesn't always work, but when it does, it's explosively funny and feels like no other comedy on television.
Then there's “Happyish,” the new Showtime comedy created by author, essayist and “This American Life” contributor Shalom Auslander. (Its official premiere is Sunday night at 9:30, though the first episode already aired once a few weeks ago and is available for free online.) It's the first TV show of any kind that Auslander's written, and it plays like the work of someone who hasn't watched cable TV in the last 15 years and therefore doesn't realize what he thinks is bold and edgy is both tired and smug in an entirely unearned way.
Each episode (I've seen the first three) opens with one of the series' leads delivering a rant against some revered figure – Thomas Jefferson, mothers, God – followed by an F-bomb, a raised middle finger or two, and a punk version of “If You're Happy And You Know It” over opening credits that suggest the episodes star the likes of Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and Dr. Alois Alzheimer. It all feels like a very tired pose, as does the moment when our hero, middle-aged ad man Thom (Steve Coogan), tells us, “I can say with authority: Fuck 'Mad Men.' There's nothing cool about advertising. There's nothing interesting.” That line is the same kind of hollow grab for credibility that you get when veteran TV cops tell their new partners, “This isn't like you see it on TV, kid,” followed by them doing things exactly like dozens of other detectives from the movies and TV.
If you want to talk smack about one of the best dramas TV's ever seen, go for it, but you'd best follow it with something other than recycled mid-life crisis tropes and screeds about vapid millennials, Twitter and skinny jeans.
Thom turns 44 in the series premiere, and the series tries to position him and wife Lee (Kathryn Hahn) as good-hearted but overwhelmed(*) people trying to find their way in a world that no longer makes sense to them. But despite two talented and likable performers in those roles, they come off as so abrasive that I often find myself sympathizing with whomever they're opposing, no matter how cartoonishly awful the other character may be. At work, Thom now has to answer to two twentysomething Swedes who understand social media but have terrible creative ideas, yet they often come off as more reasonable than him. Ditto Bradley Whitford as Thom's boss Jonathan, who says of Al Qaeda and ISIS, “These homicidal motherfuckers are fantastic marketers!”
(*) The most authentic part of the show is the messy nature of their house in Woodstock, and the wild tangle of Lee's hair. They have a son young enough to still be watching “Dora,” so neither they nor their home are likely to look camera-ready at a moment's notice.
“We've hit peak America,” Jonathan tells Thom at one point. “We're sitting in a puddle of was, and in a couple of months, I'm expecting to be replaced by a fucking app.”
“Sitting in a puddle of was” isn't a bad line, and when “Happyish” calms down even a little, you can see the vaguest outlines of what might have originally interested the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in playing Thom. (A pilot was shot before Hoffman's death.) The second and third episodes are less in-your-face than the premiere, and thus a bit more tolerable as they show Thom and Lee grappling with the big questions about parenthood, mortality, spirituality, and more, but corrosive self-pity is too much to overcome most of the time.
Even the one show's one funny device quickly overstays its welcome. As on “Mad Men,” the brands Thom's firm handles are real, and often become the subject of R-rated fantasy sequences, like some very adult material for the Keebler elves, or the Geico gecko heckling Thom, or Lee imagining a Jewish version of “Dora” (“Can you say 'Holocaust'?”). The shock value of it's funny for a moment or two, but those bits just keep going and going until it's just numbing. There's another running gag about the elves involving Rob Reiner, a fake documentary, and a cast of little people that must have seemed hilarious on paper, given how much time is devoted to it over multiple episodes, but which has no energy in execution, other than Thom's barely-concealed disgust with it all.
Coogan doesn't seem like the problem here, but I have to wonder what the Hoffman version of “Happyish” would have felt like. Would Hoffman have been able to find some nuance and humanity in Thom that isn't there in the scripts, or would we have just wondered why on earth he chose this, of all shows, as his TV series debut? As it is, I'm left wondering why Showtime wanted to go forward with this after he died. Even if Auslander's too new to this to realize how sleepy and annoying “Happyish” is, his bosses should have known better.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org